Irish singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan’s second album is inevitably more polished than her 2008 debut Sea Sew, but not so much that her own charming description of her sound as “plinky plonk rock” has become entirely redundant. The polish comes from Joe Henry’s fine production as well as fresh, breezy arrangements — the “Every Breath You Take” rhythm guitar on “A Sail”; the sea-swelling string section on “Knots”; the horns on “Home,” smooth as a single malt.
Hannigan directs her small group — augmented with strings, brass and pedal steel — from an instrumental assortment including guitar, mandolin, ukulele and banjo. Her voice can do hushed and gnarly like Joanna Newsom, with a distinctly Celtic burr that recalls anyone from Anne Briggs to Sinead O’Connor. As she demonstrated on a riveting, droney cover of “Black Eyed Dog” during a live Nick Drake tribute last year, it’s a voice that can carry the grain of trauma more than the kind of fey girly action that’s two-a-penny these days.
That strength resonates in cold-steel lines like “I think of you often/ but for once I meant what I said” (“Little Bird”). She can turn a couplet, too: “We wound our way to Texas/ where I summoned remote hexes” (“Passenger”); “Bird, we’ve spent so many days beside/ this sulk of a river” (Nowhere To Go”). Fans might wonder whether “A Sail” refers to her bust-up with her former bandmate Damien Rice, an association that foundered on mutual disagreements over songwriting: “Now it is your line, I know that I wrote it/ If you tell a lie, no one will notice.”
As the album title suggests, these songs reflect the transience of the nomadic musician/troubadour. In Hannigan’s case, it’s an Irish-American itinerary, and the songs contain a wealth of geographical reference, from Chicago, Salt Lake, Phoenix and Ohio (“Passenger”) to “the edge of Dublin” in “Paper House,” a track that recalls the magic of a youthful affair, when the world appears fresh and new and full of adventurous potential. The beauty of Hannigan’s singing is that it makes you feel those times will never disappear.